It’s important to properly set your expectations before entering Sunless Sea. What it looks like, at first glance, is a game in the vein of Pirates! or Elite – a freeform game set in an open world where you can explore, trade and fight according entirely according to your own whims, clawing your way up from having nothing to owning everything. Sunless Sea has one or two elements in common with this sort of game — especially Pirates! — but it is most definitely not them.
Then there’s the roguelikes, specifically FTL, where you have a concrete goal and meander down an unforgiving, randomly-generated path towards it; where the game is geared towards variety and replayability and the player is intended to experience several dozen unsuccessful attempts before they finally accrue enough experience to crack it open and win. Here the resemblance is stronger, but a direct comparison would still be misleading. Sunless Sea isn’t all that much like FTL either.
In fact if you asked me to find the closest touchstone for the sort of game Sunless Sea is, then I would have to dig very deep into my trove of gaming knowledge as it’s been quite a long time since I played anything like it. Once I came back up, though, I would be holding just one solitary game in my hands, with the following words stencilled across its metaphorical cover:
“King of Dragon Pass.”
Up until a couple of years ago King of Dragon Pass was an obscure curiosity of precisely the kind you spend the majority of your time in Sunless Sea trying to acquire. It was a vast, sprawling piece of interactive fiction masquerading as a strategy game; on the surface it looked like it was about managing cows and crops and fighters and spreading your clan’s influence, but while those elements did a hell of a lot to enhance the IF part of it they were ultimately a cover for one of the finest pieces of personalised storytelling I’ve ever seen in computer gaming. King of Dragon Pass wasn’t about management, it was about building your clan’s story as you threaded the narrative needle through any number of random (and not-so-random) events that helped or hindered you according to whatever actions you’d taken in response. It was a game – or rather, a story – experienced almost entirely through text, with some lovely hand-drawn art accompanying each event to enhance the atmosphere.
The curio days of King of Dragon Pass are over; it’s since had a well-received re-release both on GoG and on mobile devices (and I urge you to try it out if you’ve never played it before). It’s therefore unsurprising that we’re starting to see games cast from a similar mould1, and Sunless Sea is the first of these that I’ve encountered. Like KoDP, it looks like something else entirely — in this case, all the games I mentioned in the first two paragraphs — but ultimately its looks are an elaborate wrapper for a collection of well-written stories that mesh together to form the tale of your captain’s career. To its credit Sunless Sea doesn’t lie to the player; it’s an unapologetically wordy game and it hits you over the head with this fact from the very first moment you set foot in Fallen London, as if it’s trying its hardest to stake out its territory well away from the arcade fighting and trading elements that you might have otherwise expected. Those are present, in a rather vestigial form, but if you try and play the game like Pirates! you’re only going to end up disappointed.
To explain what Sunless Sea is actually about, it’s first necessary to explain its setting. Sunless Sea is set in a vast underground ocean called the Unterzee. You play a sea-captain in command of a small steamship; you start in your home base of Fallen London with no map information beyond a few directional clues the starting events give you (“Frostfound is to the north” and so on”), and your career is spent charting the Unterzee, landing on its various islands and settlements, and dealing with the stories and events that spring up as a consequence of your exploration. The Unterzee is a strange and eldritch place where just about anything can (and does) happen, and each of the settlements you discover is dramatically different from the last — here are the Tomb-Colonies of the north, a dusty, sepulchural settlement where the recently deceased go to live out their unlives, while there is the Iron Republic, client state of Hell and general font of insanity. I’ve seen it described as Lovecraftian but I think that does it a disservice because the Unterzee is so much more imaginative than that; it’s wonderfully creepy and venturing out to its furthest reaches is terrifically foreboding.
Because the Unterzee is underground it goes without saying that it’s more than a little bit dark down there. Your ship has a powerful lamp that illuminates the sea in front of it, but the rest of the sea is pitch black unless lit by one of the light buoys or the much rarer lighthouses you’ll find scattered around. If your lamp isn’t on you can see very little, but keeping it lit requires precious fuel – the same fuel that your ship constantly burns to make itself go. If you run out of fuel, you’re dead. On longer voyages it’s often necessary to turn the lamp off so that you’ll have enough fuel to make it to a port where you can resupply, however this means that your ship is illuminated by a pair of weakly-glowing green werelights that only light the area immediately around it, leaving you surrounded by nothing but inky blackness and the constant drip and splash of the sea.
Oh, and the sea monsters. Of course.
Exploring the unknown reaches of the Unterzee is consequently rather tense. Pushing out the boundaries of the explored territory on your map is downright hazardous unless you’re very well-stocked with both fuel and food supplies, and it’s a relief when you can make it back to a known port where you can buy fuel for the long trip back to Fallen London itself. The map is semi-randomised in such a way that the further out you go, the more isolated and otherworldly it feels; the monsters get tougher, the islands get weirder and there’s a real sense that you’re teetering on the edge of the world. A prolonged voyage will also give free reign to the Terror mechanic; too much time spent staring at horrors from the abyss, too much time spent in the darkness of the Unterzee with no light, too many encounters with magical objects and beings not of this world — all of these will raise your Terror level. If it gets too high you (and your crew) start to suffer from nightmares and hallucinations, incurring long-term psychological damage that takes a while to heal. There are scattered events that can lower your Terror level and it gets reset to 50 (out of 100) every time you return to Fallen London, which yet another reason why it’s a good idea to return home as frequently as possible.
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really feeling the whole Terror mechanic to begin with. This was because I’d been making relatively short hops only halfway across the map, and had more than enough fuel to keep my lamp burning constantly and thus stave off the nightmares of the Unterzee. That all changed when I decided to voyage to the roof of the world, where the blackness of the sea suddenly became studded with the twilight of stars and I discovered an island where two ghostly statues stood sentinel over a gateway into the unknown. I tarried too long here, pushed my Terror above 50, and for good measure was attacked by a gigantic sea creature that inflicted Terror damage with each attack just after I left the island – I lost two crew, the ship barely got away with a quarter of its hull strength remaining, and my captain has been struggling with nightmares of a giant, all-seeing eye ever since. This is the sort of atmosphere that Sunless Sea can create when the art, the sound and the storytelling are all working together in harmony, and it’s really something quite special.
Speaking of the storytelling, each individual island you can dock at in the Unterzee is the focus of its own chain of stories and events. Completing them successfully often requires a stat check (your captain has the standard RPG stats that they can increase over the course of the game) or a set of special items that must be acquired elsewhere in the Unterzee, and finishing a story often isn’t an ambigously good outcome – experiencing the unsettling events related therein can cause your Terror level to rise even as you acquire a magical item or a scrap of forbidden knowledge that can be sold back in Fallen London. Several of them give out long-term quests that require you to criss-cross the Unterzee in search of various bits and pieces of arcana, and completing these quests is a game-long pursuit. Quest options are often locked when you encounter them for the first time, but Sunless Sea is kind enough to tell you which items and stats you’ll need to unlock them — which is good, because it’s a massive, sprawling game you need some sort of hint in order to keep yourself pointed in the right direction. There’s something like three dozen islands scattered over a map that takes a good 10-15 minutes to sail across from end to end, not to mention Fallen London itself which acts as the home base and hub for everything that you do; it’s where you go to refit your ship, hire more crew and officers (each of whom have their own personal stories you can tease out of them), rest in whatever accommodation you’ve purchased with the profits from your voyages, and spend time with your family, if you’ve got one. There’s a whole system for passing money and knowledge on to your successor captains here that I haven’t really messed with; Sunless Sea starts with permadeath on, but it’s thankfully optional and allows you to revoke this at any time by saving the game manually, with the only drawback being that you give up the shiny medal that (one assumes) would show in your achievements should you ever manage to actually complete the game.
We’ll get on to just why I’m thankful for being able to turn permadeath off in a second, but first I really want to emphasise just how big Sunless Sea is; I’ve been playing for ten hours so far, and I’ve explored just over half of the map and have barely made a dent in the vast number of quests and events on offer. If you’re not put off by a lot of words in your videogames — words that are almost without exception very well-written — and are willing to let your imagination do a little bit of the heavy lifting then I could easily see Sunless Sea devouring 40-50 hours of your time before you were done with it. I’m certainly not anywhere near done with it yet; once I’d turned permadeath off and learned to live with its flaws I found it to be one of the most immersive games I’ve played since… god, since I don’t know when . The Unterzee is a fantastic setting, the writing is never less than excellent, and I fully intend to keep playing Sunless Sea until I either fulfil my captain’s ambition (which counts as completing the game) or burn out.
For some balance, though, let me tell you the story of why I came to turn permadeath off in the first place.
This was actually at the recommendation of a friend of mine who had played Sunless Sea during its Early Access phase. “It’s a great game,” he said, “but just make sure you play with Merciful Mode on otherwise you’ll ragequit.” I usually treat permadeath options as a challenge, but in this case I took his advice and I’m really glad I did because he was absolutely right — and now I’m going to give you the same advice. Sunless Sea is a great game, just so long as you’re playing on Merciful mode. If you’re not, then there are a couple of parts of it that come together to potentially make it a very unattractive prospect. First up: as I said in the opening paragraphs, this is not a trading game. There are shops where you can buy goods, true, and you can sell these goods in other ports for a small profit, but the primary reason these goods exist is so that you can use them to complete stories and quests. Bulk trading isn’t really feasible because the amount of money you’ll spend on fuel and supplies will quickly exceed the amount of money you make on the cargo. If you try and trade your way to success in SunlessSea you’re going to end up getting very, very annoyed.
On its own, that’s fine. Despite appearances it’s really not the way you’re supposed to play the game; you’re supposed to get your income from completing quests and selling your discoveries, not by transporting goods from one port to another. I suspect there’s a secondary reason trading is so ineffectual, though, and that’s because it’d give you a way to bypass the extraordinary amount of grind Sunless Sea puts you through in order to get anywhere. As an example, I’ve been playing for ten hours and I’ve just barely made enough money to upgrade from the starting ship. It’s astonishingly stingy with its cash rewards at the beginning of the game, with a half hour trip around several different ports yielding just a few hundred coins once you’ve paid for fuel, supplies and hull repairs. Having to scrape and scrabble for every last scrap of money certainly does put you in the shoes of a sea captain who is struggling to make their mark on the world, but it’s not something I’d want to put myself through more than once. Having this quantity of grind in a game where death can come quite quickly is not a good idea; I can’t imagine how soul-crushing it must be to play for several hours, make a mistake, lose your ship, and then have to build yourself up from nothing again. Like I said, there’s several options for passing your worldly possessions on to your successors, but you need to be quite well established to take advantage of them and so they won’t help at all until you get to that point.
This is my big beef with Sunless Sea, then: I’m not mortally offended by the grind — even if it is rather too severe — but it’s something that renders it very, very unsuitable to be a game where permadeath is turned on by default. In most roguelikes progress is significantly faster and playing for 4-5 hours would get you a significant chunk of the way through the game, enough so that you felt you hadn’t wasted your time once you carked it. In Sunless Sea that same 4-5 hours will barely get you started – and because of its reliance on static stories its not going to have the replayability of a roguelike, either. It seems like a big mistake for it to advertise itself on its permadeath credentials quite so heavily as it does, since that’s just going to lead to a lot of frustration and annoyance at how slow it is compared to most other games that do this.
As long as you do turn permadeath off, though, Sunless Sea becomes the game it’s supposed to be: a captivating jaunt into a world that can be weird, wonderful and scary all at the same time. There’s more imagination packed into just one of the game’s islands than there is in most AAA titles that make it to market, and what particularly excites me about this is how easy it should be for the developers to add to the content that’s already there. I’m not saying writing a new island to the same quality of the existing ones is in any way an easy task for whoever has to write it, but it requires a far smaller investment of time and resources than your typical DLC and I think Sunless Sea could expand to be even larger than it currently is a few months down the line. With a constant drip-drip of new locations and storylines it’s a game that can just run and run, that I could potentially revisit in a year and experience something drastically different. That’s where Sunless Sea’s replayability will come from, not any foolish notion of forcing the player to restart the game every time they die. Let’s just hope Failbetter Games see things the same way.
- Not that I’m saying anyone looked at KoDP and thought “Let’s copy that!”, but if you were thinking of making a game that was not that dissimilar to KoDP it can’t have hurt to see how well its rerelease did. ↩